by Larry Ham
Ok, I know, I know, when I started writing about sports for Kings River Life, I said I was going to accentuate the positive. But I have something that’s been bugging me for a long time, and it’s time to get it off my chest. [/caption]
I asked her if the easy answer as to why adults act out at basketball games (and other high school games as well) is because they’re living vicariously through the accomplishments of their kids. “It is a legitimate explanation, but it may take some reflection to realize how psychologically deep this pattern runs,” she said. “We live in a very child-focused culture. Consider the state of many suburban homes- toys everywhere; family schedules designed around dozens of child-oriented activities. Consider the expense, energy and anxiety invested in lavish birthday parties for toddlers (who are not likely to remember the event). It seems as if we have a generation of unhappy parents who are seeking meaning, value, and satisfaction solely through their roles as parents”.
So is the screaming and ranting actually directed on behalf of the kids on the floor? Not necessarily, according to Dr. Walling. “In many cases, the sports parents are not yelling on behalf of their children, they are yelling for themselves. This seems to be exacerbated in times when economic instability creates added stress and uncertainty. Parents are desperate for a measure of control over their lives and they would really like to feel successful in something. Parents attempt to find meaning and control by designing their lives around their children. This can mean giving up personal friends, hobbies, privacy, and goals in the name of raising children.”
I certainly have felt that way at times, listening to the vile things that come out of these otherwise rational looking people. Dr. Walling says it’s a dangerous precedent. “Parents run the risk of letting the success of their lives be dependent on the success of their children’s lives. This is a bad set-up for everyone. It is too much pressure for children. It also robs children from the opportunity to experience models of healthy adulthood (they never see their parents enjoying themselves as adults). Parents deprive themselves of opportunities for continued personal growth and personal enjoyment.”
Dr. Walling doesn’t excuse such behavior, but does understand, to a certain extent. “Parenting is hard. We all want to make the investment worthwhile. We all want to see our children be happy and successful. The danger zone comes when we are unable to tease apart our success and our children’s success.”
Obviously something needs to be done about the increase in hostility and aggressive acting out at the games, and Dr. Walling has some advice. “This is a teaching moment. Most of us want our children to treat us with respect. This is an odd request when parents do not model respectful behavior to other authority figures (coaches, referees, teachers, etc). Most of us want our children to act appropriately in public. How can parents request that their children manage their behavior in public when the parents are throwing tantrums in the bleachers?”
She says the answer lies in parents realizing what sporting events are and what they aren’t. They are not world changing events. They are simply athletic contests with a potential to teach kids important life lessons. “Sports are an opportunity to model persevering in the midst of disappointment. This is an opportunity for parents to show their children that even if you are disappointed or frustrated, you can hold your head up high, and stay in the game. Life is not fair, no one is treated well all the time, no one gets all the breaks they want or deserve. We don’t change this reality by yelling and screaming. We don’t help our kids learn to navigate the real challenges of life unless we teach them hundreds of little lessons along the way.”
So my other question is, why do I feel so strongly about this? I have to be honest, it deeply disturbs me to see an adult laugh at an opposing player’s injury. It hurts me to see an adult berate an official with all sorts of rotten comments. Should I just shrug it off? Dr. Walling doesn’t think so. “It makes sense that you would feel like this! It is hard to hear adults treat people (especially kids) in such abhorrent ways. Selfishly, I hope you don’t quit. It is important for adults to be around to change the tone and increase the level of civility. On some level, we need to take back control of our public spaces. I hope that your article begins some much needed conversations about what constitutes appropriate adult behavior at sporting events. I hope it also sparks some conversations about how the community might address folks who get out of control. This type of parental involvement is not helpful to kids. It can be incredibly damaging.”
So maybe we aren’t completely doomed as a society. That’s certainly the way I’ve felt many times when I’ve returned home after a game. Parents need to wise up and get some perspective on life. It’s just a game, after all, and it’s being played by kids ranging in age from 14 through 18. Do they really deserve this kind of example?
My sincere thanks to Dr. Sherry Walling and her kindness in helping to write this article and to learn a little about myself at the same time.